Place of Refuge

Book cover
The Madonnas of Leningradby Debra Dean

William Morrow. 228p $23.95

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With sensitivity and a strong sense of place, first-time novelist Debra Dean vividly recreates one of the overlooked stories of World War II. In the fall of 1941, with German troops preparing to invade Leningrad, the Hermitage Museum staff frantically packs away over two million priceless items for safekeeping. Some of the crates of art will be loaded on railcars and shipped away for protection while other containers will be hidden away deep within the building’s cellars.

Marina, the book’s main character, at the time a 20-year-old tour guide, has been enlisted to assist in the removal of the masterpieces she has shown museum visitors over the previous two years. As each canvas is wrapped and carefully packed away, its ornate frame is left on the wall as a reminder that one day the painting will be returned.

As the siege of the city begins, the museum staff, their families and other Leningrad inhabitants who did not flee live in hiding in the Hermitage’s basement chambers. Marina and her colleagues are now assigned the task of protecting the five contiguous buildings that make up the State Museum of Leningrad. During the constant German bombing raids they stand watch, prepared to extinguish any fires that might be ignited.

From her vantage point Marina not only has a front-row seat to view the ensuing battle but she also watches as those around her struggle to cope with the privations caused by the siege. With conditions worsening, she creates a memory palace, as much to maintain her own sanity as to preserve the past.

As she wanders the empty Hermitage, the young woman finds solace in recalling the contents of each of its galleries. She remembers each painting in detail and keeps alive in her mind’s eye the masterpieces she has come to love so ardently.

Some 60 years later, Marina is living in Seattle and is in the early stage of Alzheimer’s. Although she struggles to recall the fresher memories, the unripe moments of daily life, only the elderly woman’s past emerges crystal clear. At the wedding of one of her grandchildren, Marina cannot fathom what is taking place around her. It is then that her husband and family realize how serious her condition has become.

Retreating from the present and the confusion it causes, Marina slips back into the past and resurrects the memory palace that enabled her to survive the war.

In alternating chapters, Marina moves back and forth in time. As the story progresses and her condition worsens, the past and present merge more and more. Eventually she reaches the point where escaping to her inner museum seems more desirable than trying to cope with the people and situations of her everyday existence.

In a masterful manipulation of the novel’s two time frames, Dean contrasts time, place and the conditions of the periods in which the novel is set. In one chapter, for instance, she describes the severe scarcity of food in the Hermitage and in the next the wedding reception tables laden with culinary delights. In yet another chapter, the author compares death as portrayed by some of the painters whose work hung in the museum with the reality of what Marina saw happening all around her as people died of starvation.

Another gripping scene occurs late in the story, when Marina recalls taking a group of young cadets through the empty galleries of the museum. Her detailed descriptions of what the empty frames once held is so graphic and beautifully rendered that the boys (and the reader) can literally see the paintings. (Dean’s convincing recreation of the famous works of art through Marina’s eyes will likely prompt many readers to check the Hermitage’s extensive Web site and view these paintings themselves.)

The novel’s title certainly ties into the Hermitage’s extensive collection of Madonna and Child art, but perhaps it is a subtle reference to the main character as well. Although it is not emphasized, the reader is aware that Marina is pregnant throughout her Leningrad ordeal. There is nothing miraculous about the child’s conception; his father is known. Yet the fact that Marina is able to give birth to a healthy boy amid the hardship she has had to endure while carrying the child is, in a manner of speaking, a miracle in its own right.

The onset of Alzheimer’s in combination with the flashbacks that intrude on Marina’s daily existence makes the story poignant and emotionally engaging. Had Deborah Dean attempted to offer an account of the Hermitage during World War II without this particular story line it might have been interesting but certainly less memorable.

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